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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Judges

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( 1:1–36 )

Bridging the era of Joshua and the period of the judges, this chapter is a chronicle describing Israel's military progress and lack of progress in the land. The author draws brief sketches of military encounters in economic strokes and includes a few vignettes that may have been described at greater length in the non-preserved tradition. Notice the range of terms used in the first half of the chapter that describe going to war and conquering. The author varies the traditional language producing a certain texture in these verses, but, in describing defeats and inability to conquer, monotonously and repeatedly employs the same phrase, ‘did not drive out’, creating an aura of dejected resignation. Scholars frequently point to the south to north geographic orientation of the chapter. For a detailed discussion and identification of the particular sites named in the chapter see Boling (1975). Many suggest that Judg 1 preserves a more accurate view of the period preceding the establishment of the monarchy than Joshua (e.g. Boling), while one scholar eschews questions of historicity, pointing rather to the way in which different literary genres make for different varieties of historiography (Younger 1994 ). The prominent role played by Judah in this introductory chapter has led one scholar to view the chronicle as a piece of pro-Judahite propaganda (Brettler 1989 ). In its current form, the chronicle accommodates and begins to explain the clear differences between views of Israel's early history that were inherited in the tradition.

v. 1 , the opening words of the book betoken a time of transition; Moses' successor Joshua has died and new leadership is necessary. The Israelites, here treated as a whole, request an oracle from God concerning the individual or group that will lead the conquest as a vanguard. Such pre-battle requests for divine guidance are usual not only in Israelite war texts but throughout comparable material in the wider ancient Near East (see e.g. 2 Sam 5:19; 1 Sam 23:2; 1 Kings 12:22 ). In such views of war the deity or deities are ultimately involved in the battles of men while war itself is framed and characterized by ritual action (see Kang 1989: 56–72, 98–107, 215–22). ‘Canaanite’ and ‘Amorite’ are traditional designations for the purported natives of the land. For more detailed discussion of terms for people of the land see Boling (1975). vv. 2–4 , Judah and Simeon are treated as individuals by the singular verbs and pronouns of the language, lending the brief mention of their victories the quality of hero accounts, comparable to tales of the judges. vv. 5–7 , the story of Judah and Simeon's victories focuses on one cameo scene as is frequent in the war tales of Judges. A conquered king is captured and rendered less than human with the loss of his ability to grip and his capacity to balance easily on two feet. Like the blinding of King Zedekiah by his Babylonian conquerors, such treatment of the enemy indicates how symbols of one's power are as important as the power itself. The enemy leader becomes the spoils of war, a doglike creature confirming the impotence of this and other enemies. He expects no better treatment (v. 7 ); his words point to the reversal of his own fortunes as a practitioner of this crude war code and are filled with irony and pathos. God has paid Adoni-bezek back. v. 8 , this is one of the few uses in Judges of formulaic language implying imposition of the ban, a war ideology that involves the killing of all enemies, frequently by the sword, and often burning of the enemy city or town. Compare conflicting comments concerning the taking of Jerusalem at 1:21 and Josh 15:63 . Notice also in the latter the use of the plural, ‘people of Judah’ (cf. vv. 2–4 ). vv. 12–15 , this little piece of the tradition preserved also in Josh 15:15–19 presents a common folk theme concerning an elder rewarding a younger hero with a patrilineal culture's most valuable commodity, a nubile woman, his very own daughter. Heroes are frequently offered such rewards in ‘dragon-slaying’ and other combat contexts; the battle itself is sometimes presented as the difficult task posed by a powerful future father-in-law to test the mettle of the hero or to eliminate him. So Saul tests David (1 Sam 18:17 ). The interactions between Caleb, lone surviving leader of the generation of the Exodus, Othniel the hero, who also is Caleb's younger brother, and Achsah, Caleb's daughter, portray the young woman as resourceful and capable. She urges her husband to ask for land along with her, a piece of fertile earth being an appropriate extension of the gift of a woman. She herself demands water rights as her father allows and seems to expect. The theme of a hero's reward thus becomes a comment on a daughter's rights as Achsah is the first of a group of powerful women in Judges. Notice also the closely endogamous nature of the marriage.

1:17 , a direct reference to the imposition of the ban (see v. 8 ). The folk etymology for the name given to the conquered city plays on the term meaning ‘devote to destruction’ (cf. Num 21:3 ). v. 19 , the first of several ‘excuses’ offered in Judges to explain defeat and the implicit incompleteness of the portrayal of the conquest found in Joshua. With some historical verisimilitude it suggested that Israelite groups control the hill country, but not the lowlands. Actual chariots of the period would have been made of wood and leather with some iron fittings, but the image of iron chariots expresses well the author's view of his people as underdogs confronting better-armed, professional military forces. vv. 22–6 , as is frequent in biblical war portrayals and in actual warring situations, reconnaissance troops are sent to assess the situation before battle (e.g. Num 13; Josh 3 ). As in the tale of Rahab (Josh 3 ), a local person is recruited with promises that he and his family will be rewarded or spared if he provides useful information to the Israelites (see also 1 Sam 30:11–15 ). The man in this case is treated in the style of ancient genealogies as a city founder (see Gen 4:17 ).

( 2:1–6 )

This brief theophany functions as a connecting link between what precedes and what follows. It is a continuing response to the Israelites' request for divine guidance at 1:1 and an introduction to themes concerning the link between military failure and apostasy developed in more detail in ch. 2 and following. v. 1 , God's covenantal promise to give Israel the land reaches back to the era of the patriarchs, while his own covenant faithfulness is witnessed by the rescue from Egypt. vv. 2–3 , the covenant is conditional, however, upon Israel's fealty to YHWH alone. The tone and the concerns of the Deuteronomistic writer emerge strongly. Has Israel failed to drive out the enemy because of military weakness ( 1:19 ) or have they chosen to live among the forbidden, idolatrous Other? The writer here seems to understand failures described at 1:28–36 as evidence of the latter. Subsequent political and military problems are punishment for Israel's weaknesses as a covenant partner. vv. 4–5 , the people's reaction to these dire predictions provide the folk etymology for the place where the angel has appeared.

( 2:6–23 )

A theologically grounded view of history is laid out: Israel's military and political fortunes depend upon covenantal faithfulness which in turns appears to depend upon strong leadership. vv. 6–10 , a brief recapitulation of land-allotting events described in Joshua, an indication that indeed Joshua was the sort of leader who kept the people faithful to God, and notice of his demise and burial, and the death of the generation of the Exodus. Note the ominous comment that another generation replaces them who did not know YHWH or the work he had done for Israel. Such allusions to new young men in power generally signal trouble for Israel in biblical texts (cf. Ex 1:8; 1 Kings 12:8 ). vv. 11–23 , in formulaic language typical of the Deuteronomistic writers, the pattern of Israel's history under the judges is outlined: apostasy; punishment by military defeat and subjugation; the people's distress; the raising of a hero, the judge, who inspires Israel and delivers her; the death of the leader; relapse into apostasy; defeat. Compare the theology and the language in Deut 4:21–31; 6:10–15; 9:4–7; 12:29–32; 28:25 , and notice how the framework set out in this chapter unifies Judges as a whole (see e.g. the language and content at 3:7–10, 12, 15; 4:1; 6:1–10; 10:6–16; 13:1 ), making sense not only of this period in the biblical chronology but of the subsequent monarchic periods as well. Israel's fortunes depend not upon pragmatic matters such as economic strength, political unity, or military preparedness but rather upon the health of the covenantal relationship with God. Notice the language of interpersonal relationship through which covenant is expressed. Israel ‘abandons’ YHWH (vv. 12–13 ) to follow other gods, especially the Canaanite Baal and his consort. YHWH in turn becomes ‘angry’ and ‘incensed’ with them (vv. 12, 14, 20 ), while they ‘lust after’ these foreign gods (v. 17 ). This passage ends with an additional twist on the theme of Israel's incomplete conquest: enemies have been left in the land to test Israel's faithfulness.

( 3:1–31 )

The activities of the first judges, Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. vv. 1–4 , this introductory section lists by name and place Israel's competitors in the land. See Boling (1975), for a discussion of terms and sites. v. 3 provides an additional explanation for the continued presence of such groups in the land promised by YHWH to Israel. The newcomers to the land require some enemies in order to sharpen their agonistic skills. This together with the repeated suggestion that the idolatrous enemy tests Israel's capacity to resist idols (v. 4; 2:22 ), the indication that the enemy has better armaments ( 1:19 ), and the overriding theme that apostasy guarantees failure, reveal an author attempting to make sense of traditions about Israel's incomplete conquest that challenge the more triumphalist ideology of Joshua. vv. 5–6 , typically Deuteronomic in outlook, suggest that living in close proximity to those not of one's own people, the uncivilized Other, leads to foreign marriages and cultural contamination (cf. Deut 7:1–6 ). It is the world-view of a group strongly defining ‘us’ as ‘not them’. vv. 7–11 , the report concerning Othniel (see JUDG 1:11–15 ), the younger brother and son-in-law of Caleb, traces the conventionalized pattern (see 2:11–31 ) in language that is largely formulaic.

vv. 12–30 , within the recurring narrative frame of apostasy, the people's cry to God, the raising of a judge-rescuer, the successful battle against the enemy, and the lengthy respite from war, comes the beautifully crafted tale of the trickster-hero Ehud. The trickster succeeds through deception and disguise, a marginal person who uses his wits to alter his status at the expense of those holding power over him (see Niditch 1987 ). v. 15 , in this case, the rescuer's ruse is made possible by his left-handedness. In the Hebrew, the term for left-handed is literally ‘bound’ or ‘impaired with regard to the right hand’. To be left-handed is thus to be unusual or marginal, the right being the preferred side in other biblical contexts (see Ex 29:20, 22; Lev 7:32; 8:23, 25; Eccl 10:2 ). Benjaminites, Ehud's fellow-tribesmen, are described in the tradition as predisposed to left-handedness (see 20:16 ). This trait makes them especially effective warriors. The effectiveness comes not only from the lefties' capacity to surprise the enemy or to make a defensive posture more difficult. Left-handedness suggests also the power of a wild man, the ecstatic, and the socially uncontrolled. Notice the play in this verse and below upon terms for and images of ritual sacrifice. Eglon's name plays on the term for ‘calf’ while the ‘tribute’ to be offered to the king of Moab is also the term for sacrificial offering (Anderson 1987: 74). It is however the ‘fatted calf’ himself who will be slaughtered. v. 16 , the typical right-handed man would be expected to wear his sword on the left in order to draw with the right hand. Thus Ehud hides his weapon. vv. 19–20 , these verses contain language of intimacy. On ‘in secret’ see Jer 40:15; 37:17; and 38:16 ; with nuances of enticement see Deut 13:6 and Job 31:27 ; and with eroticism see 2 Sam 12:12 . ‘Coming to’ may also have erotically intimate connotations (see Ruth 3:4 ). v. 21 , the ‘thrust’ term also used in Judg 4:21 combined with the short sword that had been worn on the thigh, a male erogenous zone in the HB, and its destination the belly, a term also employed for ‘womb’ completes the womanization of the enemy whose defeat by an Israelite hero is enriched narratively by a metaphoric mixing of images of sex and slaughter, a trait of epic battle scenes elsewhere in the world (see Vermeule (1979: 101–2, 145–58, 171–3) on classical Greek material and Shulman (1986) on Tamil material). v. 24 , what did Eglon's servants assume he was doing in his quarters? The phrase translated ‘relieving himself’ in NRSV literally reads ‘pouring out’ or ‘covering his feet’, the feet being a biblical euphemism for the male member. The phrase thus may mean that he was urinating or defecating. In any event, the language suggests intimate activity involving private parts again pointing to Eglon's vulnerability and unmanning. In this context compare the encounter between David and Saul in the cave (1 Sam 24:1–7 ).

v. 31 has a brief reference to another of the Israelite liberating heroes, one that lacks the usual conventional frame in content and language. While some suggest the appellation Anath refers to a place, others suggest that the warrior's name includes that of the Canaanite goddess Anath, herself a warrior and patroness of warriors (see Boling 1975: 89). The latter points to the varieties of Israelite religious identity preserved however briefly in the epic traditions of Judges. Shamgar, like Samson, performs superhuman feats, able to conquer hundreds of the enemy with a mere ox-goad, a symbol of the agrarian roots that typify many of the heroes of Judges. Indeed an agrarian thread in Israelite identity dominates the book. Has an editor purposefully omitted much of Shamgar's story because the tradition associates this hero with things Canaanite? Has material simply been lost or forgotten? Or, for an ancient Israelite audience, perhaps the mere mention of Shamgar, the ox-goad, and the Philistines metonymically suggested a wide range of relevant and familiar stories, cited here only in brief, but more fully rendered in other contexts not preserved for us, as perhaps also is the case for the briefly described Othniel (vv. 9–11 ).

( 4:1–24 )

This chapter introduces Deborah the prophet, Barak the Israelite warrior hero, and Jael, a woman warrior who exemplifies the traditional character motif, ‘the iron fist in the velvet glove’. v. 1 , notice that the conventional narrative pattern resumes without reference to Shamgar. v. 3 , as at 1:19 the enemy is described as having iron chariots, a well-armed oppressive force. Israel does not have the use of iron weaponry until the beginning of the monarchy. v. 4 , Deborah, who is introduced at the saviour point in the pattern, after the formulaic cry to God for relief from oppression, is described as a prophet who judges Israel at this time. Other female prophets are alluded to in the HB, such as Huldah who provides an important oracle concerning the need for reform in the time of Josiah (2 Kings 22:14–20 ); Noadiah mentioned in Neh 6:14 ; and the wife of Isaiah ( 8:3 ). Were women prophets in fact common in ancient Israel, having been deleted or not preserved in the biblical corpus, or were prophetesses rare? One suspects the former given how workaday and mundane are the references to Huldah, Noadiah, and Isaiah's wife, but the current biblical context makes Deborah leap off the page as special and unusual in her mediating and leadership roles. This is how she is understood by the compiler of the traditions in Judges. (See JUDG 4:9 .)

The phrase usually translated ‘wife of Lappidoth’ may be translated ‘woman of fire’, or ‘woman of torches/lightning flashes’, in a parallel to Barak whose name means ‘lightning’. The latter conveys a more charismatic image than the identification by husband's name. Much has been written on Deborah's role as judge. Key terms in v. 5 portray her as an oracle, critical to Israel's military success because of her capacity to mediate between God and Israel. Such holy men and women are often called upon in traditional cultures to mediate between humans as well and to provide advice in a wide range of areas.

v. 5 , Deborah ‘sitting’ under a tree named for her, and the verb ‘go up’ that elsewhere in the HB describes those who seek divinely inspired counsel, suggest oracular and prophetic processes involved in rendering various sorts of judgement. See relevant terminology and content in 1 Sam 9:13, 14, 18; 2 Kings 19:14 ǁ Isa 37:14; 2 Kings 22:14; Jer 26:10–11 . vv. 6–7 , Deborah delivers to Barak, the apparent leader of Israelite forces, military instructions received directly from God concerning a confrontation with the army of Jabin, led by Sisera his general. YHWH is the ultimate military commander in the holy wars fought by his people. The promise of victory by divine communication (v. 7 ) is essential to waging war throughout the ancient Near East (see JUDG 1:1 ). v. 8 , Barak's desire to have Deborah attend the battle certainly highlights her status as a leader, but it is not at all unusual to have the holy person present in a military setting. Indeed, Samuel incorporates roles of priest, prophet, and general, while Elisha refers to Elijah as ‘the chariots of Israel and its horsemen’ (2 Kings 2:12 ). v. 9 , the ‘woman’ is Jael whose tale follows. v. 11 , the Kenites are another of the intriguing but difficult to identify pre-Israelite groups inhabiting the land. Moses' father-in-law Jethro, a priest of Midian according to traditions in Exodus and Numbers, is called a Kenite in Judg 1:16 and the present text, leading some to attribute sacral dimensions to Jael's tent (Cross 1973: 200). The point here is that Heber has disassociated himself from those Israelite connections and has become a military and political ally of the Canaanite king Jabin. His wife Jael, whose name means ‘YHWH is God’, has different loyalties from her husband, allowing for the deception in vv. 17–22 . vv. 12–16 , the pattern reversing Israel's fortunes is completed with the underdogs' victory as predicted by the prophetess. Only the general Sisera is said to survive, underscoring the epic proportions of YHWH's victory for his people and allowing the bardic author to focus on one dramatic scene involving Sisera and Jael, a cameo that encapsulates central themes and employs favourite recurring literary topoi in Judges. vv. 17–22 , like Ehud, Jael deceives the enemy into thinking that she can be of service. Sisera needs a place to hide from Israelite pursuers. Like Eglon, Sisera is rendered vulnerable and impotent, and in this case the assassin is not only one of the underdogs but a woman as well. Jael poses as Sisera's saviour and his seductress, urging him twice to turn aside to her, covering him with a rug (v. 18 ). He asks for water, but mother-like she gives him milk to drink, setting him at his ease with the wiles of women. He, like the child, drops off to sleep comforted that Jael will protect him from the Israelites (v. 20 ) whereupon, warrior-like, she strikes him dead. The phrase, ‘Comes to him quietly’ imports the language of lovers (Ruth 3:7 ) into an aggressive and agonistic scene. The tent-peg and hammer, accoutrements of settled domesticity, become weapons of the assassin. These exquisite juxtapositions—lover/killer, mother/assassin, tent-dweller/warrior—are drawn with greater detail and nuance in the ancient poem of Judg 5 . v. 22 , the fulfilment of Deborah's prediction (v. 9 ). vv. 23–4 , a reminder that the battle is YHWH's, as the conventionalized pattern is again completed with relief from Israel's oppressors. Now Israel herself bears down upon and destroys her enemies, at least for the time being.

( 5:1–31 )

The victory song attributed to Deborah is one of the oldest extant Israelite literary compositions dating perhaps to the twelfth century BCE, a time roughly contemporaneous with the era it depicts. Like the earlier works of the Canaanites discovered at Ugarit, the composition is characterized by a parallelistic variety of repetition whereby imagery unfolds in a beautifully layered or impressionistic style (Cross 1974 ), so that the parallel line adds colour, nuance, or contrast to its neighbouring description. The lines in such bicola or tricola are in general roughly parallel in length, while language selected by the composer to create content and the content itself draw upon traditional Israelite media of expression, also employed by others whose work is preserved in the biblical tradition. The song contains three major narrative thrusts: an introduction to the Divine Warrior and an overview of the historical setting for the poem (vv. 1–11 ); a catalogue of the participants and their successes or failures (vv. 12–23 ); a telling of the tale of Jael that includes a poignant cameo scene of women in the enemy camp (vv. 24–31 ).

v. 1 , the victory song is attributed to Deborah and Barak, recalling perhaps the attribution of victory songs to Moses and Miriam in the Exodus story (Ex 15 ). The victory song is a genre frequently associated with women composers in the Israelite tradition. v. 2 , while the translation in NRSV appears to refer to the Samson-like hairstyle of the warriors, others translate the first line of v. 2 , ‘When they cast off restraint in Israel’ (Boling, 1975: 107; see also Soggin: 1981: 84 for alternatives). v. 3 , notice the parallel terms and syntax in the call to hear this song, the formulaic introduction ‘hear/give ear’ (cf. Deut 32:1; Isa 1:2 ). YHWH, both muse and victor, is the ultimate source and receiver of the song. vv. 4–5 , God as Divine Warrior (cf. Ex 15:3 ) is described in his march to battle. Like Marduk, Baal, and Zeus he is a storm god whose rousing disrupts the natural realm. The epithet ‘One of Sinai’ invokes a wide range of traditional lore concerning God's place of habitation and the dramatic encounter with Israel. Imagery of earthquake also dominates the scene at Sinai (Ex 19:16–24 ).

v. 7 , the term translated ‘peasantry’ in NRSV has also been interpreted to mean ‘warriors’ (Boling 1975: 102) and ‘leading class’ (Soggin 1981: 82) while the verb ‘grew fat’ also means ‘ceased’. A translation that allows that villagers cease to prosper better suits the pattern of the song's plot depicting Deborah as rescuer, and better supports the cessation of trade described in v. 6 where the same term for ‘cease’ is found. The author describes a period of subjugation and disruption until Deborah, an archetypal mother in Israel, goddess-like and powerful, arises. v. 8 , the variously interpreted first bicolon may be a proverb that links times of political change or revolution with the exchange of power between deities. Events in the divine realm parallel the changing course of human events: ‘When new gods are chosen, war is at the gates.’ The second bicolon points to the poorly armed Israelite forces who rely less on the sort of weapons utilized by their feudal enemies than on the power of the Lord, an image well suited to Gottwald's theory about Israelite wars of liberation in the late second millennium BCE (see JUDG c.4). vv. 10–11 , these verses are among the few in extant Israelite literature that may point to the bardic process behind the composition of some biblical works. v. 12 , like the Divine Warrior himself, Deborah and Barak are formulaically encouraged into battle (cf. Isa 51:9; 52:1 ).

vv. 13–15 , in the procession motif of the mythological pattern that describes the battle with and victory over the forces of chaos, the composer describes the members of an Israelite confederation. Scholars suggest that in the absence of a centralized government, various Israelite tribes or clans would come together for purposes of defence. vv. 15–18 , this section is usually translated and interpreted to mean that some Israelite groups did not willingly join in battle with their compatriots. Yet the section sits apart from v. 23 in which Meroz is cursed for its lack of support. Providing examples from cognate languages, one scholar suggests that the term translated ‘why’ in vv. 16 and 17 is an emphatic particle that might be translated ‘verily’ (Cross 1973: 235 n.). In this case, vv. 15–18 continue the catalogue of warrior groups with references to their geographic origins and ways of life (cf. Iliad 2:485–759 ). For example, Reuben dwells among the sheepfolds (v. 16 ), Gilead tents beyond the Jordan (v. 17 ). The translations ‘tarry’ and ‘stayed’ (NRSV et al.) for terms that ordinarily mean ‘to dwell’ are forced. vv. 20–1 , the battle takes on cosmic and supramundane nuances as even the hosts of heaven, YHWH's army, join the fray and as the onrushing torrent, evocative of the sea in Ex 14–15 , sweeps the enemy away. v. 23 , Meroz, whose identity is uncertain, was one of those local groups expected to be committed to the Israelite cause. As in all ancient Near-Eastern treaty relationships, the punishment for shirking one's responsibility is a curse, understood to have real and physical power.

vv. 24–7 , another version of the tale of Jael presented in wonderfully economic style. Notice the way the author builds to the assassin's deception. Sisera asks for water, she gives him milk, or no, is it not cream in a lordly bowl? And then with repetition that underscores the violent turn in the action she is described as one who strikes, crushes, shatters, and pierces. v. 27 , the description of Sisera's death is rich in double entendres that play upon themes of eroticism and death. Sisera kneels, a defeated warrior or a would-be lover (cf. Ps 20:9 and Job 31:10 )? Is he at her feet (so NRSV) or more literally between her legs, ‘feet’ being a euphemism for genitals (see Isa 7:20; Deut 28:57 ; Ezek 16:25 AV)? The same ambivalences in meaning apply to the terms translated ‘lay’ and ‘dead’ in NRSV (cf. 1 Kings 1:21; 2 Kings 14:22; Ezek 32:29; and Gen 19:32, 34, 35; 35:22 ). The last term of v. 27 variously translated ‘dead’, ‘laid waste’, ‘destroyed’, might also be translated ‘despoiled’, cf. Isa 15:1; 23:1; and Jer 4:30 (see Niditch 1989: 47–51). The repetitive cadences of the verse, moreover, have the quality of a ritual dance of death. The enemy is at the same time seduced and slaughtered, the one serving as metaphor for the other. vv. 28–30 , the author powerfully juxtaposes the scene of Sisera's death at the hands of a woman with a glimpse of another female figure, the hero's mother who anxiously awaits his victorious return from battle. This gifted composer is able to picture the enemy camp with pathos and empathy much as Homer depicts the Trojan women. In contrast to Jael, the tent-dwelling woman, the mother of Sisera is an aristocrat peering from a house with lattice-work windows (see 2 Kings 10:30 ), accompanied by ladies-in-waiting. They assure her in poetic parallelism that her son is late because he and his men are busy dividing up the spoil. Among the spoil are women booty, a term derived from the root literally meaning ‘womb’ (v. 30 ). We know, whereas his mother does not, that no Israelite women are to be raped. Ironically in the sexually charged language of v. 27 it is Sisera himself who has been despoiled at the hands of a warrior woman practising the art of tricksterism.

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